Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani court has dismissed “sedition” charges against 23 rights activists arrested at a protest in the capital, ordering authorities to grant them bail so they may be released from prison.
The Islamabad High Court ruled on Monday that the activists had been proceeded against unfairly and asked authorities to review the case, according to an order by Judge Athar Minallah.
The activists had been taking part in a protest on January 28 against the arrest a day earlier of Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM).
The PTM is an ethnic Pashtun rights movement that has been calling for accountability for alleged rights abuses committed by Pakistan‘s military in its war against the Pakistani Taliban.
The protest on January 28 was jointly organised by the Awami Workers Party (AWP), whose provincial president Ammar Rashid was among those arrested, and the PTM.
The 23 activists are due to be released later on Tuesday.
Earlier, at the protest, two other political leaders – PTM leader and member of parliament Mohsin Dawar and AWP leader Ismat Shahjehan – had also been arrested, but they were released shortly afterwards.
Police accused the protesters of having attempted to defy their orders and raising slogans that were against Pakistan’s government and institutions.
Witness accounts and videos from the protest, however, belied that claim, showing the protesters as peaceful when police raided the demonstration venue.
At the time, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) decried the arrests as “unconstitutional”.
“HRCP believes that [the arrests] were unconstitutional and have violated citizens’ right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” chairperson Mehdi Hasan said in a statement.
“The arbitrary use of the charge of sedition under an archaic law to curb political dissent – that has in no way incited hatred or violence – indicates how little regard the state has for its citizens’ civil and political liberties.”
The arrests were the latest in an intensifying crackdown on dissent in the South Asian country, where the powerful military has ruled for roughly half of the country’s 73-year history.
Last month, parliament voted to amend a law that would allow Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa – whose term was up in November – to remain in office for up to another five years.
Criticism of the military is rare in Pakistan, with the PTM one of the few movements to directly call for accountability and protest against the institution.
On Sunday, at least 43 activists were arrested at separate protests in the cities of Karachi, Faisalabad and Dera Ismail Khan in solidarity with the PTM.
All of those arrested were released by nightfall, barring a PTM activist, Shahid Sherani, who was arrested in Dera Ismail Khan, PTM officials told Al Jazeera.
Pashteen, arrested in a midnight raid in the northwestern city of Peshawar, remains in police custody and is facing charges of “sedition”.